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Gentrification & Revitalization – Two Edges of the same Sword

Lee Walton

Robert Behre offered Palter &Chatter readers a rare glimpse of in-depth, timely journalism in Sunday morning’s front-page Debate over gentrification a social, political hot potato. His article gave a fairly accurate description, from the local perspective, of a debate that is now occurring in many coastal cities throughout the South. This increasingly familiar cycle of urban renewal is now producing whole city blocks of new townhouses between Spring and Cannon Streets to fill the insatiable demands of mainly white, affluent empty nesters and retiring “Boomers from Off” who are discovering or rediscovering the benefits of living in the relatively dense, pedestrian friendly urban environment of Peninsula Charleston.

Central to this debate is the politics of gentrification as it now threatens the socioeconomic character of Charleston’s historically black neighborhoods in the Upper Peninsula and adjoining Neck Area. The African-American political base within the Peninsula is quickly being diluted by an ever growing influx of affluent whites; these rapidly changing demographics have already resulted in the loss of one minority City Council seat after the 2000 census and will likely cause the loss of a few more in 2010.

Make no mistake about it - gentrification is about political control nurtured by public policy decisions, which create favorable business environments to minimize financial risk and maximize return to private sector investors that specialize in urban redevelopment. Upper King Street and several side streets east to Meeting Street now bristle with new hotels, expensive infill housing projects, trendy boutiques, restaurants and specialty shops. The inflow of venture capital that precipitated this redevelopment was made possible by the City of Charleston’s largest Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District justified by claimed economic blight within the surrounding, predominately African-American neighborhoods.

With the favorable market forces made possible by the City’s redevelopment policies and objectives came the natural, unavoidable consequence of gentrification – minority displacement. Minority families and single, fixed-income retirees who want to live out their lives in the neighborhoods of their youth just can’t – rising taxes and lack of community support groups eventually force them out. Their neighborhoods no longer look the same – its most apparent in the architecture. Row after row of postmodern town houses painted in vivid shades of red, blue and “desert sand” on postage-stamp lots have replaced the quaint front porch oriented houses that were home to generations of families in self-contained minority neighborhoods that offered most of life’s necessities within walking distance.

Lastly, the City’s affordable housing initiatives, intended to counteract gentrification in the Peninsula, have been dismal failures. Faith-based nonprofits have wasted hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on questionable historic building restorations while others have gone belly-up and required City bailouts to save face. First-time home ownership houses sit for years without qualified buyers while “affordable” (to whom?) rental units are constructed in the heart of Daniel Island’s trendy town center.

Under the Riley Administration, cutting edge revitalization in Peninsula Charleston has created a meca for trendy living if you’re white and affluent. Likewise, gentrification has slashed through historic African-American neighborhoods and created a nightmare of loss and sorrow if you’re black and poor.

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